Finland’s largest and capital city, Helsinki is a travel destination that combines the flavors of Scandinavia, the Baltics and Russian Europe into a unique urban landscape. The city itself has approximately 600,000 inhabitants while the metropolitan area, which includes the three cities of Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen, has a population of 1.3 million.
While I was on safari in Kenya and Tanzania a few years back, I met a girl from Helsinki who, after talking about traveling, urged me to visit Helsinki. She then commented that while she invites people all of the time, it is a rarity that anyone takes her up on her offer, given the distance and [some would say] isolated nature of the city. I assured her that I was not like every other traveler!
A few years later, before I set a course for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, I delivered on my promise to visit Helsinki. My initial impressions were that texturally it felt like Stockholm – in the way that Stockholm feels clean and organized and deliberate – in some areas bordering on sterile [a texture one might find in many capital cities such as Washington, D.C.].
Digging a bit deeper, I found that the city was anything but sterile, and that the people were quite accommodating. Of course my experience may have been skewed by the fact that I was there in August when the temperatures were not sub-zero.
The origins of the city are well-documented. Helsinki was established in 1550 as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden. His intent was to build a city that would rival Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland [then known as the Hanseatic city of Reval]. Gustav’s dream never really came to fruition, and in the early 18th century a plague killed a huge percentage of the inhabitants of Helsinki. It was not until Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War [1808-09] and annexed Finland as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland that the development of Helsinki really took off. Czar Alexander I of Russia [reigned 1801-1825] moved the Finnish capital to Helsinki to reduce Swedish influence in Finland and in so doing promoted the status of the city.
One of the reasons Czar Alexander I moved the capital to Helsinki was the Suomenlinna fortress, now a UNESCO world heritage site. Suomenlinna is essentially a group of small islands guarding the entrance to Helsinki harbor, and this location was the strategic key to defending the city. A fortress was built on these islands, and it is the military architecture that makes this a world heritage site.
Suomenlinna fortress consists of eight islands, 3.7 miles [6 km] of walls, more than one hundred guns and cannon barrels, 290 buildings, six museums and nine restaurants. A short ferry ride from Helsinki and you have arrived.
Once on the islands, you feel like you have arrived in the countryside light years from the city. As if you have time-traveled, you can wander among the 18th century paths and structures where you can take in the architecture, cannons and serene coastline. If you are there in the summer like I was beware the bees – there are many – especially near the few small cafes that dot the islands. A map is also very helpful, so be sure to pick one up at the information kiosk when you enter.
More information on the Suomenlinna fortress can be found here.